Our portfolio company Suite101.com announced today that it has launched French and Spanish versions of their site after successfully expanding to Germany a year ago. Expanding an Internet company to international markets should be part of every business plan but is often easier said than done. At AbeBooks (which has localized sites for Germany, the UK, France, Italy and Spain), we learned a few lessons the hard way so here is a list of things you should consider when planing to take you company international:
- Internationalization cannot be a side project for a company but needs the full attention of the management team, dedicated product development resources and a long-term vision.
- You do not necessarily need an office in every country that you open a website for BUT you need at least a presence in the same time zone and native speakers working for you. Trying to grow European websites from a North-American location with North-American staff will not work but a lot of companies have been successful in running several European countries out of one centralized location with native speakers from these countries. Berlin, London and Barcelona are probably the best choices for such hubs.
- Take your time to build an internationalization framework for your website that lets you very quickly roll out new currencies and languages. One-off launches for a single language / currency are only faster on the first glance.
- Be aware of cultural differences between the different (European) countries – this is where native speakers come in that can help adapt a product, process or communication to local specifics. A few examples: credit card adoption is still very low in Germany, paying by bank transfer much more common. English tag lines are becoming more common in Germany but still are a no-no in France. Logistics in Italy can be problematic as the Italian postal service is not the most reliable.
Despite these challenges it is very worthwhile to think about international markets once the business is the home market is established, There are over 300 million consumers waiting in Europe to be served, with Internet penetration numbers that are gettig very close to North-American ones.